BENNINGTON — Two different state leaders; two different messages last week about their plans to receive — or postpone receiving — the second COVID-19 booster shot. So, who’s right?
Both, according to Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
The CDC recently revised its recommendations to allow immunocompromised individuals and people over the age of 50, who received an initial booster dose at least four months ago, to be eligible for another booster to increase their protection against severe illness from COVID-19, noting that the power of boosters to prevent severe cases wanes with time.
Gov. Phil Scott, who is 63, was asked at his news conference if he planned to receive the second booster, in light of the updated advice.
“I don’t see the need. I’m pretty well-protected right now,” the governor responded. “I probably will wait a bit.”
He noted that COVID caseloads in Vermont, while up slightly, still remain fairly low, as do hospitalizations. He said he’s fully vaccinated and received the first booster, so predicted that even if he contracted the virus, his case would likely be mild.
That view reflects the thinking of others who are reluctant to immediately receive the additional shot, given that in all likelihood we will require additional protection from any new variants and/or when cold weather returns in the fall and we move back indoors where the variant is more transmissible.
In contrast, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced in his office newsletter last week that he had already received his second booster, adding a photo of the senator getting the shot.
“As we face the third year of COVID and now this new sub-variant, it is imperative that we remain as vigilant as possible,” Sanders, 80, said in the statement. “COVID is here to stay for a while, and we just need to learn how to manage it.”
In a conversation with the Banner, Levine said the Health Department has not taken a position on whether older Vermonters should receive the second booster. He said he generally recommends a second booster for those with underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious COVID cases.
“We have been of the opinion that if you’re in those groups and haven’t had any significant harm from the vaccine, that there is very little risk in getting it and there may be some benefit,” Levine said.
“The most important reason to be vaccinated is not to prevent a positive test, but to prevent serious outcomes which occur more often in the higher risk group,” he said. His advice to Vermonters wondering whether to receive the second booster: “We definitely want people assessing their own risks based on what they know about themselves, what their own risk tolerance is, and having that conversation with their own health care provider.”
Levine said the most important steps for anyone to take are to receive both doses of the vaccine and the initial booster four months later.
“I’ve been incessantly telling the public, ‘If you are fully vaccinated but not boosted, you must get the booster.’ I want to continue to reiterate that message over and over, and not get people confused,” the commissioner said. “If you are in one of these risk groups and want to get an additional booster, fine, do that … there’s no harm in that.”
But, he added, “I don’t want people to have booster fatigue.”
He said it’s possible the boosters will be adjusted going forward to match current variants, much like the annual flu shot is designed to prevent that year’s flu strain to the extent possible.
Asked if the state’s Commander in Chief — Gov. Scott’s — decision to probably delay getting the second booster modeled the wrong action for the public, Levine scoffed.
“They shouldn’t use him as the Model in Chief,” the commissioner said. The governor (and Sanders) did what each Vermonter should; he made his decision based on his personal set of circumstances.
“That’s the process that each and every one of us has to go through.”